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How I Got Ejected From a Super PAC Reception

CHARLOTTE—At about 3:45 on Tuesday afternoon, I headed over to a restaurant called Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen in downtown Charlotte, just a block or two from the Time Warner arena, where the convention was about to start. A source had told me about a reception being held by the three big Democratic “super PACs,” the shadow groups that have grown up to support political candidates—in this case the Obama campaign and a variety of current and would-be members of Congress. Like most political reporters, I've been intrigued by the mechanics of super PAC fundraising pretty much since they arrived on the scene in 2010. I figured they would be worth observing up close.

When I got to Rooster’s, the ground floor of the restaurant had been cleared out, and there were only a handful of people milling around near the entrance and the bar. I pulled up a seat, ordered a club soda and waited for either the event to start or to be tossed out, whichever came first. After about ten minutes, a blond woman in an elegant blue-green dress approached me with two little cardboard signs. She placed one on the bar in front of her and asked me to put the other one in front of me. The sign was full of incomprehensible legal disclaimers—“solicitations made by federal candidates and officeholders at this event are limited...” Apparently they even do fine print at receptions these days.

In a way, the campaign industry has become expert at substituting legalisms for actual restrictions. There is, after all, no limit to the amount of money super PACs can raise and spend. The only thing they can't do is “coordinate” with the candidates they support. So the super PACs go to the necessary legal lengths to establish their independence—they have separate staffs, separate budgets, separate offices—when it's plain that the people who run them and the people who run the campaigns are intimately acquainted with each other’s thinking. Or, better yet, intimately acquainted with each other. In February, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina announced that he would send top campaign and administration officials to appear at fundraisers held by Priorities USA, the Obama super PAC run by his former White House colleague Bill Burton. (The Romney campaign has exploited the legal rules in identical ways.)

One imagines the donors themselves being in on in this succession of winks and nods. And maybe the moneymen of the right take pride in giving reformers the finger. But, so far as I could tell, the only thing the post super PAC world has done for wealthy Democrats is test their patience. 

Not long after the event started, I noticed a conversation going on to my right. Two men who could pass for Democratic donors—one trim with white hair, the other heavy-set with long dark hair—were on the receiving end of a hard sell from a fundraising pitch-man, a middle-aged guy wearing a tag that said “Obama 2008,” but with the “08” crossed out and a “12” in its place. The pitch-man talked about the president's poll numbers in key swing states like Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia. He said that every dollar they gave would support the president's re-election efforts. He said that, with only 60 days before the election, time was of the essence. This went on for the better part of half-an-hour. (Burton later told me the man doesn't work for Priorities USA, but said the group has a network of friends who make the case on its behalf. It's also possible that the man was pitching for another group, or the Obama campaign directly.)

Afterwards, I sidled up to the white-haired prospect to ask if the pitch had worked. He was clearly exasperated. He said the time and place for this conversation were wrong. There was no way to have a real back and forth in the loud din. Besides, he'd just recently been hit up by another politician and was feeling tapped out. He pointed to a super PAC pitch-man who works for Burton’s group—a tall, 30-ish guy in a red-checked shirt named Teddy Johnston—and said Johnston had grasped that the moment wasn't right and promptly dropped the matter. But the guy in the crossed-out Obama ’08 tag just kept pressing.

I asked why he and his fellow Democratic donors seemed so reluctant to give to super PACs. (Priorities USA set out to raise $100 million, but has only taken in about $35 million, though $10 million of that came in August.) Was it a matter of principle—revulsion at all the fundraising excess? Not exactly, said the donor. In his view, principle was mostly an excuse donors invoke but which few feel acutely. Really it was just a matter of believing the president would win even without their money—the donor mentioned all of his different paths to 270 Electoral College votes. If the prognosis darkened, the party elders could always step up then.

The donor explained the crux of the super PACs’ problem: Burton et al had to thread an incredibly fine needle, depicting the president as likely neither to win nor lose, but hovering in that sublime limbo where a few more million dollars would make all the difference. It was a delicate exercise and sometimes the pitch-men neared incoherence. According to the donor, Obama-’08/’12 had argued both that the situation was urgent, but also that the president's poll number in places like Colorado and Virginia were better than he, the prospective donor, believed them to be.

After about an hour, Paul Begala, the former Clinton aide who is the Obama super PAC’s most recognizable salesman, approached the table where the donor and I were hovering and dislodged a bar stool. He apologized for wagging his “ass in [our] face” while he struggled to climb it. Finally it was time to watch a pro in action, at least to the extent anyone is a pro in this business.

Begala was his usual irrepressible self. He quipped that it wouldn't matter if it rained on Thursday—a nagging concern given that the president was scheduled to speak at an outdoor stadium—because “our guy walks on water.” (The speech was later moved indoors.) He joked that the problem for the Republicans in Tampa last week wasn't the empty chair next to Clint Eastwood but the empty suit who accepted the nomination. The crowd loved it. At his most serious, he sympathized with the Democrats who consider the money sloshing through super PACs something akin to corruption, but insisted that turning their backs on them would amount to unilateral disarmament. As long as Khrushchev had nukes, he told the room, he wanted Kennedy to have them, too.

But even Begala struggled a bit to close the sale. The tens of millions of dollars the Democratic super PACs have raised are what Sheldon Adelson, the conservative casino magnate, refers to as “brunch,” he warned. “Still,” he confessed, “I'd rather be us than them,” since Democrats have the presidency, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi. At another point, he talked about how Democrats were united while the GOP was divided—they had to contend with the “Cro-Magnons” and the “Neanderthals,” among other factions. But then he doubled back to the sheer size of the GOP stockpile. Back and forth this went—one second the skies were blue, the next second there was reason for despair—until you wondered whether it was neither, or both, or maybe it all balanced out—it was tough to say. In the end, Begala's best argument may have been his most Republican argument: None of us will forget what you in this room have done. It's the argument of mafiosos and drug king-pens and, you know, Tom DeLay. But it just may have succeeded.

Alas, I never got the chance to check. Shortly after Begala spoke, I was introduced by another new acquaintance to a Democratic official, who asked who I was with and promptly showed me the door. The event, I was told, was “closed press.” The official said it in that hushed way that suggests something truly untoward has been going on.

Walking out, I thought of another difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to money. There's no question I would have been thrown out of a Republican fundraising reception, and probably even quicker. But at least the Republicans would have done it with some bravado. Here, there was only a faint whiff of embarrassment. 

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber